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Visualizing Peace(ful Cities): The Experimental City

    ‘You become so attached to what you believe is the future, and a better future. And all of a sudden that better future has disappeared.’

    Todd Lefko, a former member of the Minnesota Experimental City Authority, The Experimental City
    The Experimental City (Chad Freidrichs, U.S., 2017) trailer, video by Unicorn Stencil Documentary Films via Vimeo

    The Experimental City (MXC project), launched in 1966, was proposed as a laboratory for testing urban systems to maximize technology’s capacity to regenerate the post-War American city. Athelstan Spilhaus, the visionary behind the idea, conceptualized cities as machines, and thus believed they needed a prototype to systematically eliminate pollution, urban blight and sprawl. Spilhaus, referred to as ‘the 20th century da Vinci’, was a polymath intellectual who dedicated his life to envisioning and inventing the future of urbanism. He maintained that new technology had untapped potential because society, by nature, feared the unknown and embraced the conventional.

    The Experimental City was to be built on a rural site in Minnesota so that its systems could be observed, altered, and replaced in a controlled environment. Central to Spilhaus’ concept was having a fixed population (around 250,000) so that the total system could be pre-designed for the necessary provision of services. He thought that the fundamental flaw of the contemporary city was that it accommodated population growth, which led to unchecked development and the deterioration of existing infrastructure. With the MXC project, Spilhaus pioneered the concept of a circular economy, adamant that waste was not an issue with which to be dealt, but a resource to be utilized. 

    Our New Age comic strip by Athelstan Spilhaus, photo via Unicorn Stencil Documentary Films

    During an era of economic prosperity, national pride, technophilia (first man on the moon), and growing concern over the Baby Boom and rise in consumption, the plan initially gained support. With a total budget of 10 billion dollars, the project would require federal subsidies in addition to private investment and was banking on the post-Vietnam peace dividend to fund initial planning and research. But, in 1968, ever-headstrong Spilhaus abruptly resigned from the project. He was unhappy that its experimental aims were neglected due to political pressure for the construction phase to begin and a public relations strategy that rebranded the Experimental City as an ‘instant utopia’. His original goal was not to create an escape from Minneapolis or Detroit, or any other city, but to show disillusioned city dwellers how technology could transform urban living.

    After he left, the project quickly lost momentum, which corresponded with growing criticism of the project’s use of humans as experimental subjects and the displacement of residents who lived on the development’s proposed 55,000 acre site. At the same time, environmental protests were occurring across the nation, and the sentiment that technology was the enemy, and nature was sacred, was gaining traction. This did not bode well for the MXC project, which was officially defunded at the beginning of 1973. 

    Because there is no city in rural Minnesota with cable hung dwellings, holographic information energy structures and personal flying zones, the Experimental City was long denied a legacy. But, the documentary, Experimental City (Chad Freidrichs, U.S., 2017), has shed light on Spilhaus’ bold ideas, which are as relevant to urban planning discourse today as they were sixty years ago.

    Minnesota residents protesting the MXC project, photo via Unicorn Stencil Documentary Films

    Watching the documentary’s archival material of newspaper headlines, diagrams for MXC, and interviews with Spilhaus, gave me the unsettling feeling that the film could be documenting a contemporary project. The Experimental City was meant to be a projection of the year 2000. Yet it is 2022 and the economy is not circular, cities are still clogged with cars and zoned by building typology, and utilities are haphazardly buried underground as cities expand. The climate crisis is framed as a problem we need to scramble to solve, but solutions being proposed today are the same ones Spilhaus was proposing over half a century ago. The only difference is that the stakes are now higher. Is technology the enemy, as it is portrayed to be in environmental debates both then and now, or are humans their own worst enemy? Spilhaus laments that ‘people think bigness is necessarily bad’, and yet every invention was at one point inconceivable. Ironically, Spilhaus’ opposition rejected his conviction that anything you imagine can be built because it wasn’t a pragmatic sentiment, while at the same time their own irrational emotionalism in the face of environmental destruction prevented MCX, a mechanism for addressing these fears, from taking shape.  

    The documentary itself constructs its own vision of the peaceful city. It is not a carbon copy of the Experimental City transposed onto film; rather it provides a vision that can be all the more influential due to its ambiguous, un-embodied form. But, most importantly, the documentary uses hindsight as a tool to show how the two opposing sides in a historical debate have more in common than they realize. The film shows that the man with the 10 billion dollar concept genuinely cared about the people for whom he was designing a new kind of urbanism, and also that the residents who protested development in their town deeply cared for their environment. As the quote at the beginning of this entry says, everyone becomes attached to their vision of the future. When these visions are lost in the folds of history, film can become a vessel for architectural conceptions of peace to live on in their intangible form.

    What do you think? 

    • How do you think post-war conceptions of peace in the United States influenced the reception of the Experimental City?
    • What role can innovative place-making like this play in post-conflict recovery and peace-building? How does it compare, as a peace-building tool, with more basic urban re-building programmes in conflict-affected places?
    • If you lived in rural Minnesota would you have protested against MXC or would you have wanted to be a part of it?
    • Do you believe, like Spilhaus, that technology can be a reliable ‘solution’ to the very problems it has created, or do you think that technological developments have the potential to do more harm than good?

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

    You might also enjoy ‘Visualising Peaceful Cities‘, ‘The LINE in NEOM‘, ‘The 15-minute City‘, ‘The Invisible Urbicide Project‘ and ‘Green Mosul‘.

    Eleni Spiliotes, December 2022

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